A glorious month in a glorious year

The visit of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to Alnwick. The Royal party walk through the garden.
The visit of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to Alnwick. The Royal party walk through the garden.
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The latter part of June is always rather a special time in the gardening calendar.

It’s not just the long hours of daylight which prompt our bird population to sing almost around the clock but a combination of firsts that signal summer has finally arrived – harvesting the first potatoes, and strawberries or cutting fresh roses for example.

But this year has suddenly surpassed all others for this fellow and thousands of people throughout Northumberland, with last week’s very special visitors to Alnwick.

Did we dig our potatoes in accordance with the Newcastle Races and Town Moor fair week tradition? Absolutely yes and they were of good size and clean as a whistle, which is only to be expected of ‘Foremost’, in my opinion still the best ‘early’ around for taste and performance.

Strawberries were being harvested even before the flow of potatoes began. ‘Florence’ and ‘Elvira’ are weighing in with some large fruits while those of ‘Albion’ are more modest, the biggest being around golf-ball size. But of course they will continue producing for several weeks yet.

Even at this early season stage I note that new runners are starting to take root. Leave well alone and they will do so throughout the bed but if you wish to exercise more control and end up with well-developed specimens, plunge a small pot filled with multipurpose compost into the soil and peg a potential young plant into it. Come the autumn it can be easily transferred to a permanent position.

Having grown such beauties, it would be sad if they were allowed to become the victim of heavy rainfall and attendant mud splashes. So the time has come to borrow an armful or two of straw from the horses and bed down these precious summer fruits.

Traditionally, the last week in June can be relied upon to offer the first display of roses, and in The Alnwick Garden we have arguably the widest ranging display in the north.

When David Austin donated three thousand bushes, covering well over two hundred different varieties, ten years ago, the gift included a mere two dozen cultivars of his famous English roses.

The remainder comprised climbers, ramblers, moss, musk, rugosa, etc and they are all contributing to a heady cocktail of fragrances right now.

So firmly established is the English rose that it seems to have been around for generations, but that is not the case. It was developed in relatively recent times by a gentleman who remains very much alive.

David Austin, the farmer, began experimenting with cereal crops, cross-pollinating in an attempt to improve the yield.

He then turned his attention to the nation’s favourite flower.

His experiments with old roses, hybrid teas and floribunda types resulted in an interesting series of plants. These combined the fragrance, form and charm of the old with the repeat flowering and colour range of the new. The English Rose was born.

Order a David Austin catalogue today www.davidaustinroses.com and see how many different versions of this rose type have been raised in recent years. A shrubby growth habit is part of the attraction but do consider the eventual height and pruning operations when selecting.

Some reach little over knee high while others may require a step ladder.

Above all else, these roses have a combination of form and fragrance that is outstanding and makes answering one particular question so difficult. It was posed last week during a volunteers’ dead-heading session, that is the removal of spent rose flowers to encourage more, in TAG.

“Which of these has the best scent?” asked the lady visitor. In explaining that this depended on individual preferences, I outlined the range which includes myrrh, musk and several instantly-recognisable fruits. Thus advised, she set about the task of identifying her favourite under the best possible conditions – a warm, damp morning.

It’s almost three years since the lady of the house and I received a formal invitation to attend the garden party of a fellow rose enthusiast in London but it just seems like yesterday. The garden in question was at Buckingham Palace so of course we jumped at the chance to see Her Majesty’s choice of plants and it turned out to be a memorable visit. Roses figured strongly, with iconic cultivars ‘Queen Elizabeth’, ‘Gracious Queen’, ‘King’s Ransom’, ‘Royal William’, ‘Silver Jubilee’ and ‘Golden Wedding’ occupying individual beds.

Fast forward three years, and the recent news of our sovereign’s impending visit to Alnwick.

It seemed appropriate that we should in turn showcase our roses, which are truly fit for a queen.

That her demanding schedule ruled out the chance of examining them is academic.

What matters is that she came, acknowledged the existence of a wonderful garden and received the warmest of welcomes.

The lucky volunteers and carers who stood in line to meet and converse with the Royal couple, must have been impressed by their commitment, warmth and charm.

June is an exciting month anyway but this year it has suddenly become special. The Lord Lieutenant of our county deserves the highest praise for making it so. But you must come back to see our roses Ma’am.